WASHINGTON – Calling her decision “intense and agonizing,” Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, cast a vote of “present” in Tuesday’s re-election of Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
Morella said she decided against voting “yes” or “no” until a final report from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct could be made on Gingrich’s admitted ethical wrongdoing. Morella joined only five other House members – one a Democrat – in voting “present.”
She said she pressed the Republican House leadership to reschedule the vote or nominate an interim speaker.
“I felt it was unconscionable for us to have to make a decision as important as speaker without having heard the ethics committee,” Morella said.
“There was no other viable candidate, so I voted my conscience.”
Morella said she took the weekend to read a preliminary 22- page ethics committee report and formulate her decision.
As she deliberated Monday, a group of about 60 protested in front of her Rockville field office.
Lori Melman, an elected member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, organized the event to criticize Morella publicly for her silence on the issue.
“It really sends a message to Montgomery County voters that she is incapable of being a leader and a voice,” Melman said. “It’s as if we didn’t even have a representative.”
The seven other Maryland House members voted Tuesday along party lines.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, joined the two other Maryland House Republicans in voting to retain Gingrich, shrugging off the ethical questions surrounding him.
“One of the most treasured principles in America is that you are innocent until proven guilty,” Bartlett said.
“It was on the basis and the accomplishments of the 104th Congress under Gingrich’s leadership as speaker that I cast my vote for him.”
Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, who serves on the ethics committee, was one of 205 Democrats voting for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., as speaker. The other three Maryland Democrats joined Cardin.
Cardin’s press secretary, Susan Sullam, said her boss voted against Gingrich because he felt the speaker “was not up to the job.”
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, predicted the vote for speaker will not end Gingrich’s problems.
“These issues will continue to hound the Republicans,” he said. “The ethics issues will be around for a while.”
Gingrich admitted late last month that he violated House ethics rules by not seeking specific legal advice about the use of tax-exempt organizations to fund what might be considered partisan activities.
He also conceded that he gave the ethics committee inaccurate and incomplete information during an investigation of the matter.
The ethics committee will recommend a punishment.
Morella said Gingrich spoke to her four times before the Tuesday afternoon vote, in which the Georgia Republican retained his speakership, 216-205.
Asked what Gingrich said when she informed him of her decision, Morella said, “He knew it was a matter of conscience.” She said she did not expect retribution from the leadership.
Gingrich, the first Republican re-elected speaker in 68 years, took a very different tone in accepting the top House job than he did after 1994’s tumultuous Republican take-over.
“A lot of this agony I brought on myself, and I apologize to the American people,” Gingrich said.
The other four Republicans to vote “present” Tuesday were Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana; Scott Klug and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin; and Frank Wolf of Virginia.
Gephardt was the only Democrat to vote “present.” CNS reporters Mary Schumacher, Brian Love and Karen Masterson contributed to this report. -30-